The White House is on the cusp of starting an illegal war with Syria — and risking a broader conflict with a nuclear-weapons state — because failing to do so would cast doubt on the credibility of Donald Trump’s tweets.
That may sound like partisan hyperbole, or a pitch for an Andy Borowitz column. But it is a plain description of the state of American foreign policy, on this Friday the 13th.
Earlier this week, the president decided to start his day by announcing, over Twitter, an imminent missile strike against the Assad regime. Since then, Defense Secretary James Mattis has been urging Trump to consider the potential downsides of such an action: Launching an attack of any significance against the Syrian government would put the United States into a military confrontation with Iran and Russia — states that are far more invested in propping up Assad than Washington is in removing him.
In testimony to the House Armed Services Committee Thursday, Mattis referenced the risk that such a strike could spark a broader conflict, saying, “We are trying to stop the murder of innocent people. But on a strategic level, it’s how do we keep this from escalating out of control — if you get my drift on that.”
Mattis’s concerns seem to have made some impression on the president, who tweeted Wednesday that an attack on Syria could come “very soon or not so soon at all!” But at the end of the day, Trump sees defending the integrity of his Twitter feed as more important than avoiding a third world war: As the New York Times reports, even “with Mr. Mattis’s urging of caution, administration officials said it was hard to envision that Mr. Trump would not move ahead with strikes, given that he has promised retaliation.”
In fact, Trump – and his new national security adviser John Bolton – reportedly see starting a fight with Iran and Russia as a feature of a massive strike against the Syrian regime, not a bug. As the Wall Street Journal reports:
President Donald Trump is prodding his military advisers to agree to a more sweeping retaliatory strike in Syria than they consider prudent, and is unhappy with the more limited options they have presented to him so far, White House and other administration officials said.
In meetings with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Mr. Trump has been pushing for an attack that not only would punish the Syrian regime but also exact a price from two of its international patrons, Russia and Iran, a White House official said.
…Mr. Bolton favors an attack that would be “ruinous,” crippling some part of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and national infrastructure, according to a person familiar with Mr. Bolton’s thinking. Mr. Bolton doesn’t want a reprise of the 2017 attack hitting an airfield that would be up and running in short order, this person said.
Of course, the official rationale for such a strike against the Assad regime would not be “the president tweeted that he would,” but rather, that America has a humanitarian responsibility to deter the Syrian government from using chemical weapons, as the latter allegedly did against civilians in the suburb of Douma last week.
But the notion that an American strike would be motivated by a sincere desire to protect the Syrian people — and defend international law — is patently absurd.
To state the obvious: Donald Trump is not a staunch defender of the Geneva Conventions. The man campaigned for the presidency on a promise to reinstate military torture and deliberately murder the wives and children of suspected terrorists. And nothing about Trump’s tenure as commander-in-chief has indicated that the latter was a mere rhetorical flourish. The president has loosened restrictions on airstrikes that were designed to minimize civilian casualties — and such casualties have, predictably, risen on his watch. More chillingly, a recent report from the Washington Post suggests that Trump personally criticized the CIA for waiting until a terror suspect parted with his family before launching a fatal drone strike against him (ostensibly, the president would have preferred for the agency to kill them all).
And the president has displayed no more regard for the Syrian people than he has for international law. As The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart notes, Trump has all but barred Syrian refugees from our shores — after taking in 6,000 displaced Syrians by this time in 2017, America has taken just 44 so far this year.
More fundamentally, there is simply no reason to believe that a missile strike would actually deter Assad’s use of chemical weapons. After all, the White House launched a strike on that very pretense last April, and the Syrian regime has already (allegedly) deployed chemical weapons against insurgents and civilians seven times this year. The logic of these attacks is loathsome but not inscrutable: The Syrian opposition is an existential threat to Assad’s rule; the United States is not; thus, Assad is willing to deploy chemical weapons to counter the former, even if that means antagonizing the latter. The only way to irrevocably change that calculus would be to persuade Assad to see the U.S. as an existential threat to his regime — and the only way to do that would be to fight a bloody war with Iran and Russia.
Just weeks ago, Trump was calling for an immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria. At that point, Assad was already allegedly using chemical weapons in a routine manner. If the president has gone from believing that countering Assad was not worth keeping a single U.S. soldier in Syria last month — to believing that doing so is worth waging a world war, today — then his decision cannot be attributed to rational thought, much less humanitarian conviction. In reality, all available evidence suggests that Trump tweeted a declaration of war because the cable news programming he was watching Wednesday morning led him to believe that that was the “tough” thing to do.
For now, Mattis is urging his colleagues to wait until the U.S. can collect more evidence confirming Assad’s role in the Douma attack – and then, if such evidence proves forthcoming, and America’s allies are on board, to execute a symbolic “show strike” that sends the regime a message without risking a wider conflict. But according to White House officials, the United States is more likely to roll the dice on starting World War 3 — because Donald Trump promised to launch a spectacular military strike against Syria in an early-morning tweet.